In addition to problems in communication and social interaction, and the presence of restricted or repetitive behaviors, individuals with autism frequently exhibit altered sensory function. Sensory issues are commonly seen in more than one domain, and the ability to synthesize or integrate information across senses is often affected. There is little empirical information, however, that systematically characterizes the sensory and multisensory deficits in people with autism, or that relates sensory changes to cognitive abilities.
Mark Wallace and his colleagues at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, are attempting to do this, focusing on the time window within which visual and auditory cues are integrated. In preliminary work, they have found that this window is abnormally long in individuals with autism. This extended window could lead to ‘noisy’ or ‘fuzzy’ perceptions of the world, and may play an important role in the communication and social deficits that characterize autism.
To test this idea, Wallace’s team plans to examine the relationships between multisensory function and cognitive abilities, with an emphasis on language and social skills. Previous work from the Wallace lab has shown that training can improve multisensory function in adults, and the researchers plan to test whether this is also true in those with autism.
Their main goal is to show that improvements in sensory and multisensory processing result in improvements in language and social abilities. If so, such information would be directly relevant to the development of better therapeutic strategies for autism.